What if Companies Designed All College Courses?

According to a piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education, many companies are really eager to promote a digital education to American college students. And then their designed courses might eventually be all that college is. Be afraid:

Flat World Education is one company that is trying to make “student experience,” in the holistic sense, into a killer app. Flat World started, in 2007, as a publisher of inexpensive, print-on-demand textbooks. Then, in late 2012, the company hired Christopher Etesse, a former senior vice president at Blackboard, as CEO.

Under Mr. Etesse, whose background is technology, not textbooks, Flat World has broadened its focus. These days the company not only wants to sell textbooks to individual professors—it wants to sell the infrastructure for entire online programs to colleges.

In January, Flat World announced a partnership with Brandman University—the adult-education arm of Chapman University, in California—to create a new online bachelor’s-degree program in business administration. Under the deal, the company will supply textbooks for many of the courses in the business program. It will also provide the online platform on which Brandman’s instructors will teach those courses.

This is despite the fact that there’s no real demand for digital textbooks; students mostly don’t want to study using such things.

But by offering the architecture of education as a commercial product, companies like Flat World (be wary of any intellectual initiative inspired by a Tom Friedman book) are, in the words of the Chronicle article, “jockeying among themselves for greater control of the learning experience.”

What companies win, and it doesn’t really matter so much who does, will dominate the college experience because what this really represents is the triumph of the instructional material, rather than the instructor, in forming an intellectual experience.

Historically, at least in classes that were any good, the instructional material, the textbook, was a secondary part of the class. The main part was the lecture. But in this new world, the article predicts, “faculty roles will be peripheral by traditional standards.” The instructional material will be the whole course.

This is not the worst thing in the world. Students still have great potential to learn wonderful things from courses like those provided by companies like Flat World.

But let’s be realistic. The best college courses are those taught by engaging, involved professors who assign all sorts of diverse readings and have interesting lectures that challenge students. The worse courses were those (“and this week we will being chapter six…”) that were closely based on the instructional materials.

What sort of future do we want here?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer